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Shia power struggle in Iraq

Shia power struggle in Iraq

At the root of the Iraqi Shia’s troubles lie the competing ambitions of their leaders, writesSalah Nasrawi

The first thought that must have crossed the minds of many Iraqis when they learned about the fight that broke out between a Shia member of parliament and a Shia politician at a Baghdad television building was that the much-feared Shia power struggle had come to pass earlier than many had expected.

“This is a state of militias,” was a comment widely posted by Iraqis on social networks this week, referring to the surge in the number of Shia paramilitary groups in the country and the increasing militarisation of the Shia political factions and their meddling in both public life and state affairs.

The brawl began in the reception area of the Dijla TV station when MP Kadhim Al-Sayyadi of the State of Law bloc and Baligh Abu Galal, a spokesman of the Citizen’s Bloc, accidently ran into one another.

Both groups are within the Shia National Coalition that has been in control of the Iraqi government since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

The brawl started when Abu Galal, scheduled to appear on an evening talk show, did not return the greetings of Al-Sayyadi when the later appeared in the reception area on his way out of the studio. The bickering that followed quickly escalated into a fight that turned into shooting.

Both Al-Sayyadi and Abu Galal have a long history of squabbling with other Shia politicians, sometimes inside parliament or on the air. In May, Al-Sayyadi was beaten up by Shia Sadrist Movement MPs during a debate to elect two ministers. A few months ago, Abu Galal was at the centre of a dispute with an influential Shia tribe that had accused him of slandering an MP belonging to the tribe.

Beneath the chaos looms a complex struggle between Shia leaders that reveals much about the country and the surprisingly opaque nature of power in Shia-led Iraq. On the surface, the Shia National Coalition is a broad grouping encompassing the country’s main Shia factions. Real power, however, rests with an inner circle of oligarchs.

The most recent, and probably the most daunting conflict, grew out of the reforms that Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi has promised to carry out in response to the widespread protests that have taken place since August against rampant government corruption and poor services and in favour of calls for change.

The struggle has also been fueled by the rise of the Shia militias that first arose after the US-led invasion to confront Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups and were reinvigorated following the seizure of swathes of Sunni-populated territory in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS) group, threatening Baghdad and Shia-dominated central and southern Iraq.

Al-Abadi’s reforms, though too meagre to matter, have been met with resistance by the Shia oligarchs who dominate the government and parliament. Last month, the parliament withdrew its support for Al-Abadi’s reform package, accusing the prime minister of overstepping his powers.

Many of Al-Abadi’s reforms, such as scrapping top government posts, target Shia politicians accused by protesters of corruption, incompetence and negligence. Among those whose jobs have been axed is Al-Abadi’s predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki who has the post of vice-president in Al-Abadi’s administration.

Some of the measures introduced by Al-Abadi, including cuts to the hefty benefits received by MPs and senior officials that have been key demands of the protesters, have been challenged by Shia politicians who use their positions to fill their pockets through endemic corruption.

Four months after promising the reforms, Al-Abadi is still battling opposition that threatens his authority. Last month, Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone was again declared off limits a few days after Al-Abadi said he would open it to the public. Lifting restrictions on the 10 square km area has been a major demand of the protesters.

But the emergence of the Shia militias remains the most serious challenge to Al-Abadi. The Iran-backed paramilitary forces that have officially become part of Iraq’s armed forces as the Hashid Al-Sha’bi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), are quickly moving to the centre stage of Iraq’s politics and becoming a threat to Al-Abadi’s authority.

Last month, PMF leaders pressed the parliament to send the draft 2016 budget back to the government, demanding increases in funding for their units which they said was not sufficient to allow them to fight IS.

They leaders have also been pushing for increases in the numbers of the Forces, which are now believed to include some 120,000 fighters and aspire to play a larger role in the country’s domestic security.

Al-Abadi seems to be under the hammer of his fellow Shia politicians, who are taking advantage of Iraq’s troubles to cash in on his faltering efforts at curbing corruption, improving government efficiency and taking down IS militants.

The future of Al-Abadi’s government is currently the most discussed topic in Iraq. In recent weeks, there have been frequent reports in the Iraqi media about efforts by Al-Abadi’s opponents to call for a no-confidence vote in his government in parliament.

Other reports have suggested that the beleaguered prime minister has lost the support of Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has been backing Al-Abadi’s reforms. During a visit to Najaf, the seat of Al-Sistani’s authority, last month, Al-Abadi did not meet the cleric, a sign that Al-Sistani is probably discontented with the slow pace of reforms.

Opposition to Al-Abadi is also growing within his own Dawa Party, and Party leader Al-Maliki, who fought to stay in office and prevent Al-Abadi from taking over following last year’s elections, is widely believed to be working to overthrow Al-Abadi.

In a stunning remark, the head of the Party’s bloc in parliament, Ali Adeeb, told the Washington Post last week that Al-Abadi was perceived to be “illegitimate.” The statement reflects the deep divisions within the Dawa Party, which has shelved a conference planned this month to elect a new leadership and review the stances taken by Al-Abadi.

After 13 years in power following their rise in US-occupied Iraq, the Shia religious parties are sinking into ever-deeper disarray. Their corrupt and power-greedy leaders are sacrificing competence and unity in the face of the country’s political chaos.

Their maneuvering to block the badly needed reforms, insistence on clinging onto power, and in particular their fierce competition for power and resources have led them to be at war with themselves.

Worse still, the increasing role played by the militias and the militarisation of the Shia groups could drive the country into a political showdown. The prospect of an internecine Shia war looks steadily more alarming and its possible impact on Iraq’s national politics is growing.

On Saturday, Al-Abadi made a passionate appeal to his rivals to abandon a “competition which is aimed at finding fault with others”. He urged them “to belong to the country and not to their political affiliations”.

As if to test the will of his opponents and disperse perceptions about his own weakness, Al-Abadi also trumpeted his achievements in terms of reform and vowed to continue implementing his anti-corruption programme.

Both assertions, however, are now looking rather doubtful.

Al-Abadi may stay in office until the end of his term in 2018, thanks to the complicated political procedures that will be needed to find a replacement. But he will be a lame duck at the mercy of a conglomerate of Shia oligarchs and militia leaders whose agenda is to keep the government under their control.

Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani helped put the Iraqi Shia in power, but can he save Iraq from the scourge that has besmirched their leaders, asks Salah Nasrawi

It was Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s most scathing criticism of the Shia-led government in Baghdad since he helped the Shia to gain political power in Iraq after the US ousted the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Al-Sistani’s warning that the country faced dire consequences, including possible partition, if real reform was not carried out reflects Iraq’s top Shia cleric’s increasing frustration with the government’s efforts at fighting unbridled corruption.

The call also comes as the Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitary units struggle to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group from the large swathes of territory its militants captured during a major offensive in summer last year.

“If real reform by fighting corruption relentlessly and if social justice on all levels are not achieved, the situation could get even worse and might, God forbid, push [Iraq] to partition which no nation-loving Iraqi would like,” Al-Sistani said in a written response from his office to questions from the media posted on his website.

“Without rampant corruption in government institutions, in particular the security forces, and without the abuse of power by officials, the Daesh (IS) terrorist organisation would not have been able to control a large part of Iraq’s territory,” Al-Sistani said, using the Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.

Al-Sistani’s stern warning came as thousands continued to protest in Baghdad and in the Shia-dominated south of Iraq as they have done for several weeks, calling for reform and actions to be taken against corruption and the lack of services, especially poor electricity supplies.

Since the demonstrations started in late July, Al-Sistani, who has unmatched clout among the Iraqi Shia, has made several calls for reform that have played a major role in driving prime minister Haider Al-Abadi to launch a reform programme.

On 7 August, Al-Sistani gave an unexpected boost to the protesters’ demands through one of his senior aides by calling on Al-Abadi to take tougher measures against corruption, saying the “minor steps” he had announced the week before were insufficient.

The following week, Al-Sistani called, through another senior aide, for reform in the country’s judiciary which many Iraqis believe is deeply corrupt and has failed to fight graft and strengthen the rule of law and human rights.

Apart from the protests, Al-Sistani has been showing signs of concern about the incompetence and greed of the Shia-led government and has spoken out in a political perspective about the need for change.

He has repeatedly called on Shia politicians to think of Iraq’s interests, not their own. Last year, he urged the leaders to refrain from clinging to their posts after a government crisis triggered by former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki who was seeking a third term in office despite his failure to muster enough support in parliament.

Since the overthrow of Saddam, the Iranian-born Al-Sistani, who is revered by millions worldwide, has played a key role in the emergence of Shia power in Iraq. The Shia had always perceived themselves as excluded under Sunni-led governments since Iraq’s independence from Britain in 1921.

Al-Sistani was keen that Iraq’s Shia majority would not be marginalised in the new political system. Shortly after the US-led invasion, he declared that an elected assembly should convene to write a new constitution and prepare the country for general elections.

Thanks to a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Al-Sistani for the Shia to cast their ballots in Iraq’s first post-Saddam elections, the Shia groups came well ahead of Sunni and Kurdish rivals and gained a majority of seats in the new 275-seat parliament.

Last year, Al-Sistani took the unprecedented step of issuing a call to arms after Sunni-led insurgents seized more towns in Iraq. In his fatwa, Al-Sistani said that all citizens who were able to bear arms should volunteer to join the security forces to fight the terrorists, defend their country, their people and their holy places.

Thousands joined the Shia militias which played a crucial role in the defence of Baghdad and the two Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf as well as in retaking Sunni-populated cities and towns from the militants.

Now many Iraqis believe that without Al-Sistani’s call for “minor” jihad, most of Iraq, and probably the capital Baghdad, would have been lost to the IS terror group.

Today, however, the Shia-led government that Al-Sistani has supported with vigour and near-religious zeal is showing signs of a total slump, bogged down in dysfunction and infighting. There are fears that the damage done by the government is irreparable and could threaten the entire country’s future.

The situation has reached the point that most of those who have been protesting against the government are Shia. In many demonstrations, protesters have been shouting slogans against the religious Shia groups and their leaders who have created Iraq’s post-Saddam ruling oligarchy.

Al-Abadi has ordered cuts in cabinet and government posts and in the number of personal guards for officials. He has also ordered the reallocation of the funds budgeted for the positions and proposed cutting vacancies.

Still, to many Iraqis, Al-Abadi’s reforms seem unsubstantial and even cosmetic. Some believe that they are too little, too late. Others say that a major gap remains between statements and implementation.

The increasing public frustration with Al-Abadi’s foot-dragging could transform the peaceful protests into a more broad-based social and political revolt that would pit the demonstrators against the Shia ruling oligarchy, probably in a violent battle.

On Monday, the government deployed the army to quell a large sit-in the mostly Shia-populated city of Hilla south of Baghdad after police failed to disperse protesters who wanted to storm the governor’s offices.

A day earlier, protesters demanding jobs closed roads in many southern cities, including by blocking access to Iraq’s main commodity port in Um Qasr. In Karbala, demonstrators stormed government buildings and clashed with security forces.

The escalation of the protests will put Al-Sistani in a frustrating dilemma: a reclusive religious leader who avoids being engaged in politics is finding himself publicly handling one of the most serious crises that has faced Iraq since the US-led invasion.

There are daunting challenges that Al-Sistani will have to face if the protests in Baghdad and in the southern Shia provinces develop into a large-scale protest movement, or even an uprising against the Shia-led government.

Many protesters are accusing Al-Abadi of being weak and scorning him as being incapable of resisting the Shia political groups, including his own Dawa Party, which benefit from corruption and even from prolonging the war against IS.

These protesters believe that even with Al-Sistani’s backing for reform, the entrenched and corrupt Shia political leadership will make changes extremely difficult.

This is even more daunting because it means that Al-Sistani will have to work hard to ensure that the Shia oligarchy and the religious groups do not continue to take advantage of his standing at the expense of the moderate and secular Shia who are behind the current wave of protests.

There are signs that the protests have been creating a new cross-sectarian secular culture and a dynamic of citizenship that the Shia Islamic-oriented political leaders who feed on the Shia-Sunni divide fear will put their power at risk.

It is not yet clear just how far Al-Sistani, who has been carefully shielding the hard-won Shia power in Iraq, is prepared to go in support of the protesters, especially if they escalate their demands and call for dissolving the government, the parliament and the constitution.

One thing is crystal clear: the gulf that has opened up between Iraq’s silent Shia majority and its rulers has been highlighted by the recent protests and any misstep in handling the crisis will perhaps create greater dangers.

Al-Sistani, however, can seize an opportunity from the crisis by taking bold steps, including by isolating the entrenched Shia oligarchy which has been emboldened by the support of religious groups and encouraging the role of the secular Shia and their civil organisations in power.

This will also help to ease the sectarian polarisation in the country and facilitate a national rapprochement by isolating radical Sunnis and building bridges with moderate Sunnis who feel excluded by the Shia predominance.

How Al-Sistani will handle the crisis will be crucial not only for the Shia but also for the future of Iraq.

Shia-Sunni schism deepens

Shia Sunni schism deepens

If we have any sense of history, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are sectarian in essence, writes Salah Nasraw

Like the summer heat, the fear of impending sectarian clashes is weighing on the Middle East these days. Compared with previous catastrophic wars, a sectarian flare-up looks much worse and could have profound implications for our time. Even Ramadan, Islam’s most sacred month, doesn’t seem immune from the gloom.

From wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, a government crisis in Lebanon, and the bombings in Saudi Arabia, the perception that the region is sinking into deep sectarian conflicts is becoming a reality. Fierce rivalry between a Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia and a Shia conglomerate led by Iran is heightening sectarian tensions, even in conflicts that are primarily political.

A key factor behind the tension is the rise of Shia Islam that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and fears that the newly empowered Shia will try to carve out political space for themselves in a Sunni-dominated region. The turmoil that marred the region in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, which trigged a tectonic shift in the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape, has also increased regional sectarian tensions.

In Iraq, the rise of the Shia upset the sectarian balance in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country and reinforced the historic conflict between Islam’s two main sects. The Shia-led government failed to build a consensus democracy following the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein. This gave rise to Sunni radicalisation and mobilisation to fight back against what Sunnis perceived as exclusion and marginalisation.

The culmination of the Sunni insurgency in the Islamic State (IS) group’s onslaught last year and its seizure of vast chunks of territory has sharpened the sectarian divide as Shia militias moved quickly to fight for what they saw as their survival against the militants. Sectarian violence and atrocities committed by both sides have deepened the intercommunal strife and taken the region’s historic Shia-Sunni split to a potentially explosive level.

The popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria soon turned into another regional sectarian flashpoint when Iran and the rest of the Shia in the Middle East backed the Alawite-dominated regime, while Sunni Arabs supported the country’s Sunni majority. The war has engulfed the residents of Alawite and Sunni villages and towns in massive atrocities and in many cases revealed vengeful tendencies towards sectarian point-scoring.

In a recent interview with the Al-Jazeera television network, Abu Mohamed Al-Golani, head of the radical Al-Nusra Front, warned that his Al-Qaeda-affiliated group did not only want Syrian Alawites to disavow Al-Assad and drop their arms, but also to “correct their doctrinal mistakes and embrace Islam.” Al-Golani vowed to fight Iran, which he described as a “non-Islamic” and “Persian” state hostile to the Arabs.

EXTENSION OF THE CONFLICT: The war in Syria has spilled over into neighbouring Lebanon, with the Shia group Hizbullah siding with Al-Assad and many of the Sunni faithful in Lebanon openly supporting Syrian rebels. Over the past few weeks, clashes have roiled the borders with Syria as Hizbullah carried out its most intense operations against Sunni militants who have taken up positions in the porous mountainous region.

Hizbullah’s offensive has increased Shia-Sunni tensions in a country that has its own turbulent history of religious and sectarian struggles. Many expect that in a post-Al-Assad Syria dominated by Sunnis, their co-religionists in Lebanon will take heart and demand a greater role and more power. If Al-Assad, or the Alawite minority, stays in power, or if Syria falls apart into ethnic mini-states, Lebanon could easily follow suit, but only after another bloody war.

The crisis in Yemen, where competing forces are also fighting for control, has further galvanised the region. Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Gulf Arab nations in the fight against Shia Houthis who now control large swathes of land in the impoverished but strategically important country. The Saudi-led intervention has turned what was mostly seen as a political and tribal power struggle into a sectarian conflict between the Houthi minority and Yemen’s Sunni majority.

In all these countries the conflicts between the Shia and Sunni communities are seen as part of the larger regional geopolitical struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. The sectarian alignment, crystallised in the war in Yemen with Saudi Arabia assembling a coalition of Sunni nations against the pro-Iranian Shia Houthi rebels, is a clear sign of how sectarianism is snowballing.

Given the intensity and scale of the Shia-Sunni conflict in the region and its dynamics, Saudi Arabia itself is not immune to the sectarian competition. Saudi Arabia’s Shia, who comprise about 15 per cent of the population, have been struggling for greater political and economic rights and especially equal treatment by the country’s dominant Wahhabi establishment, which considers them as heretics.

Last month, attacks in the Shia-dominated eastern province of the country, where dozens of Shia worshipers were killed by IS suicide bombers, were an indication of how rising tension in the region is penetrating the kingdom itself, feeding a bloody sectarian struggle. Following the deadly attacks, messages posted on social media in the kingdom were rife with anti-Shia rhetoric, with some calling for the killing of the “impure” Shia infidels and the destruction of their “temples.”

Frightened and feeling betrayed, Shia in the eastern province sought to take matters into their own hands and create self-protection committees to guard against IS attacks. That was immediately rejected by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, also deputy premier and minister of the interior, who warned that the government “will confront those who try to undermine its security and stability with an iron fist.”

Other Middle Eastern Muslim countries where Shia are small minorities, such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan, have not been spared the spiralling sectarian tension raging in the region.

In Egypt, a report by the Cairo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies cautioned against the “repercussions of Shia political and religious activity” in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution in 2011. The report said the “reactions of the Egyptian Shia sect to Operation Decisive Storm have gained a lot of attention and raised questions about the extent of the presence of the Shia in Egypt.”

In April, a new Salafi group was formed to combat Shia activism in Egypt. The announced launch of the Coalition for the Defence of the Prophet’s Companions followed increased Shia-Sunni polarisation over the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Security crackdowns on the Shia in Egypt, including closing down their offices and questioning their leaders, have also increased.

FIRE UNDER THE ASHES: The modern Shia-Sunni struggle dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and its aftermath, when conservative Sunni countries in the Middle East, faced with Shia Iran’s claim to lead Muslims worldwide, responded by challenging the Islamic credentials of the Shia ayatollahs who had become Iran’s new rulers. The Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s opened a new chapter in the sectarian schism, as most of the Arab countries supported Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime against Shia Iran.

The animosity gained new impetus with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which empowered the majority Iraqi Shia at the expense of the Arab Sunni minority that had ruled Iraq since independence in the 1920s. The prospect of a Shia-led Iraq triggered alarms bell among many Sunni regimes of the danger of a geopolitical shift in the region, one in which Shia Arabs could ally themselves with Shia Iran.

Many Sunni Arab leaders started warning of a Shia Crescent, the crescent-shaped region of the Middle East where the majority population is Shia, or where there is a strong Shia minority in the population. The idea was that a shared faith could lead to potential cooperation between Iran, Iraqi Shia, Alawite-dominated Syria, and the politically powerful Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Sunni militant groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which were born in the upheaval that following, took anti-Shia zeal to new heights. The rivalry reached genocidal levels with the resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), an Al-Qaeda offshoot, after civil war erupted in Syria in 2011. The group, which later declared itself as a caliphate and came to be known as the Islamic State, refuses to recognise the Shia as Muslims and has given them a grim choice of conversion or death.

ROOTS OF DIVISION: The Sunni and the Shia are the two main sects of Islam. Followers of both sects believe Allah is God, that Mohamed was his last prophet, and that the Qur’an is the holy book of Islam.

Unlike the different denominations of Christianity, the division between Muslim Shia and Sunnis is not defined by doctrine. They share most of the same Islamic tenets, but have some differences in their interpretation of the religious texts and the Prophet Mohamed’s traditions.

However, there are also differences between the two groups in the way they govern themselves and how they view political leadership within Islam. These variations stem from a disagreement over who was the legitimate leader to succeed the Prophet Mohamed after his death in 632 CE.

Some of his companions argued that the new leader should be chosen by them, while others claimed the role should stay within the Prophet’s immediate family. Those who supported the idea of “selection” won, and Abu Bakr Al-Sidiq, a close companion of the Prophet, was installed as the caliph (successor) or chief Muslim civil and religious ruler.

Muslims who felt that the leadership should stay within Mohamed’s clan rejected Abu Bakr and his successors and instead supported Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. This row has led to two main branches within Islam: the Sunni and the Shia. While supporters of giving rule to the Prophet’s descendants took on the name of Shiat-Ali (“the party of Ali”), commonly shortened to Shia, the others were called Sunni, meaning those who follow the traditions of the Prophet.

Today, Sunnis account for some 90 per cent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide and have been the dominant branch in the Middle East for centuries. Although the Shia are spread across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, they constitute a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain. Hundreds of thousands of Shia also live in the United States and other Western nations, and they, like their Sunni counterparts, are primed for sectarian sentiments.

Despite its historic roots, however, the split within Islam has not been this deep or bloody for centuries. It is only in recent years that it has emerged as the biggest fault line in the struggle for dominance in the Middle East and beyond.

The geopolitical conflicts raging between the Sunnis and Shia are shaking the Middle East today. Sectarianism is being instrumentalised in various ways to advance geopolitical aims, including justifying extremism and employing religiously oriented propaganda in conflicts.

As if to underscore the antagonistic nature of these conflicts, the warring parties have showed no willingness for a pause during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which started last week. The United Nations has asked for a halt in the fighting in Yemen during Ramadan, a time of fasting, spiritual reflection and worship, yet the fighting has not abated neither in Yemen nor in other countries.

Consequently, with so much blood being spilled and chaos spreading, the most pressing question being asked now is whether rising sectarianism in the Middle East reflects real religious differences between Islam’s two main branches or is merely politics.

For those who believe sectarianism is the work of the colonial powers, the phenomenon was not such an issue before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its growth is a result of the struggle for wealth, power and territory in the region.

A careful and in-depth analysis of the modern history of the Middle East shows that the rise of sectarianism is not spontaneous, though religious, sectarian and ethnic divisions after the independence of the Arab countries from the Ottomans and Western colonial powers seemed less pronounced. The recent turmoil may just have been the catalyst that exposed long-hidden sectarian prejudice and biases.

In their heyday, during the immediate post-colonial era, the focus of the region’s founding fathers was on establishing a common pan-Arab and national identity in the face of religious and ethnic identities. But sectarianism has revealed not only the fragility of the modern Arab nation-state, but also the deep religious hatred that seems to be the sole preserve of one sect group or the other.

For now, sectarianism continues to exacerbate regional conflicts. For many people, the fear is that the vicious Shia-Sunni division that has been poisoning Islam for 1,400 years may become even get worse.

This article appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on June 26, 2015

The Shia militias’ moment

The Shia militias’ moment

Sectarian chaos fomented by the Islamic State group is giving Iranian-backed Shia militias the chance to rise in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi met members of the Iraqi community in Berlin during a visit to Germany earlier this month, he stunned many in the audience who raised concerns about the growing role of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and reports of widespread abuses committed by their members.

“They have always been there and they will stay there even after the end of the presence of Da’esh in Iraq,” Al-Abadi told the small crowd at the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

The remarks were in sharp contrast to the government’s claim that Shia paramilitary groups fighting IS militants are operating under the umbrella of the security forces. They also contradict earlier statements by Al-Abadi that his government has zero tolerance for armed groups operating outside its control.

Some eight months after the beginning of the IS onslaught and its declaration of a Sunni caliphate, Iraqi Shia militias are struggling not only to beat back the radical Sunni militant group but also to make their mark on Iraq’s politics, and maybe even define the country’s future.

The Shia militias surfaced during the sectarian flare-up that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. They were reinvigorated after IS took over swathes of northwestern, Sunni-dominated, Iraq and threatened Baghdad and Shia-populated provinces in the south.

The international media and human rights groups have criticised these militias for alleged abuses, including kidnappings, forcing residents to leave their homes, assassinations and even executions in Sunni areas.

But little attention has been paid to the wider political implications of the rise of the Shia militias and how, in cooperation with their Iranian backers, they are changing the political landscape in Iraq and probably beyond.

The new forces started to emerge a few days after a senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a call to arms. After the fall of the northern city of Mosul in June last year, Sistani urged all able-bodied Shia men to join the security forces and stop the IS advance.

Tens of thousands of Shias who showed up at recruiting centres to sign up for the Iraqi security forces ended up joining the militias, some of which were established after IS expanded its reach to control large chunks of the country.

What was thought at first to be a short-term backup for the Iraqi military has now evolved into a new model for the Shia paramilitaries. It is called the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) and operates outside the control of Iraqi security forces.

Though it remains largely decentralised, the PMF has been effective in driving back IS jihadists along an extensive battlefront, at a time when Iraqi security forces routed in the IS blitz in Mosul still need rebuilding.

This has allowed the Shia militias to take centre stage not only in the war against IS but also in shaping national politics, which since the fall of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 has been based on a shaky system that attempts to maintain a balance between feuding communities.

But the risk posed by the Shia militias is daunting. Rather than helping to restore peace and stability and re-unite Iraq, their abuses and rising role in politics could further deepen the nation’s ethno-sectarian divisions.

One of the main challenges for the badly needed national reconciliation is the need to reassure Iraq’s Sunnis that the government will be able to reverse the sectarian and divisive policies of the former government of ex-prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and create a more inclusive political system.

Atrocities attributed to members of the Shia militias are threatening to alienate Sunnis, whose support is vital in the fight against IS. Unless the government reins in the Shia militias it will be impossible to convince the Sunni community to turn against the militants.

Most Sunni tribes distrust the Shia militias and have rejected the participation of the PMF in operations to drive back IS from Anbar and Mosul that could begin in a few months.

Last week Hadi Al-Amri, the commander of the Badr Organisation, appeared in a video widely circulated on YouTube. He warned Sunni tribes in the city of Tikrit against staying “neutral” in the fight against IS.

In some cases, the Sunnis’ worst fears have come true. On 7 February, two men from a prominent Sunni tribe were killed in Anbar province after being detained at a checkpoint controlled by a mixture of security forces and Sunni and Shia volunteer fighters.

A few days later, a prominent Sunni tribal sheikh, his son and several of his bodyguards were abducted and killed in Baghdad.

Such incidents led Sunni political leaders to suspend their participation in the government and parliament. They are demanding that the militias be disarmed and dissolved.

Iraq’s Kurds also stand firmly against allowing Shia militias into territories captured by IS, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani has insisted that the Shia militiamen will be “prohibited under any circumstances” from entering the city.

The Kurdish position has triggered a backlash. “You have no right to prevent any Iraqi from entering any province. When we come [to Kirkuk] you will run away,” Qais Al-Khazali, commander of the Iranian-sponsored Asaib Ahl Al-Haq group, said in response to Barzani’s statement.

The quarrel over the militias is further complicating other disputes between Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Last week, the KRG said it may withhold crude oil exports over a budget dispute, a move that could derail the fragile power-sharing agreement with the Baghdad government.

The dangers of the rise of the militias also extend to the Shia political groups that have been in power since 2003. Traditional Shia political movements that have monopolised Shia representation for decades, including the Islamic Dawa Party and Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, have been eclipsed by the dozens of militias now vying for power.

In the short term, the militias’ increasing strength threatens to undermine the government’s authority and its efforts to reassure Sunnis that their interests are being protected.

The threat from the Shia militias is growing to the point where in the long run its supporters could have the power to overthrow the Shia-led government. Analysts have begun drawing parallels between Iraq’s Shia militias and the Shia Houthis in Yemen, who have replaced the government in a slowly progressing coup.

In a report detailing the militias’ abuses, the international rights group Amnesty International noted that the militias are not subordinate to the government and in many cases appear to have more authority and effective power on the ground than the beleaguered government forces.

The government’s primacy is also being challenged in other realms, including military effectiveness. The Shia militias now outnumber the Iraqi military and show more devotion and fighting skills than the security forces.

Naturally, in this phase of the conflict in Iraq, the militias are bound to affect the security forces’ ability to act effectively.

What is also worrying is Iran’s growing role in building the Shia militias, especially through funding, training and supplying them with weapons. After IS captured Mosul and other cities last year, Iran mobilised its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build a massive and effective Iraqi Shia paramilitary force.

Iranian top brass, including the powerful commander of the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force, Qassim Soleimani, have been travelling to the frontlines to coordinate war plans with militia commanders.

Arguably, in a Middle East already beset by deep sectarian schisms, there are fears that the PMF will evolve into an IRGC-style force whose role in regional conflicts will be to advance a Shia sectarian agenda and Iran’s interests.

But given the disastrous course of events in Iraq since IS’s brutal ascent and the ongoing regional polarisation, one can hardly expect violent non-state actors, including the Iraqi Shia militias, to fail to take advantage of a state weakened by incompetence, factionalism and chaos.

By seizing their chance amid the anarchy, the Shia militias may now have their moment in Iraq. But if they remain as a militarised force after IS is defeated, as stated by Al-Abadi at the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, then they will be a strategic game-changer in Iraq.

A row over Iraq’s Shia militias

A UAE’s list of “terrorist organizations” provokes outrage by Iraq’s Shia ruling coalition, writes Salah Nasrawi
Every time Iraqi Shia armed groups are accused of abuses against Sunnis, the country’s Shia ruling elite come to their defense. They even express indignation for calling them militias and insist that they are para-military forces which function as back-up to the security forces under the government’s guise.
But last week’s Iraqi Shia leadership’s reaction to the United Arab Emirates’ move to include some of these militias in its new terrorism list was so furious that it had almost provoked a diplomatic tussle. Vise President and former Nuri Al-Maliki accused the UAE of supporting terrorism while some Shia leaders accused it of being sectarian. Protesters in several Shia cities demanded that the oil-rich state make an apology.
The controversy started on 15 November when the UAE blacklisted 83 organisations as terrorists in line with a law it has issued to combat “terrorism crimes.” The measure is also part of the Gulf state’s continued crackdown on Islamic–oriented groups deemed to be a threat to its security. Though the list includes IS, Al-Nusra and other jihadist groups, others are well known Sunni Muslim organizations active in politics or charity.
At least one UAE group, Al-Islah, that the authorities say is part of the Muslim Brotherhood is included in the list.
The UAE move has satisfied a promise by its government to crackdown on Islamist political groups in co-ordination with other countries in the region like Egypt and Saudi Arabia which also consider groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organizations.
In August, the UAE passed a law which defined a wide range of activities as terrorism crimes. Under the law people charged with crimes, such attempts on the life of head of the UAE president and rulers of other emirates or their families or endangering their freedoms of their safety will be sentenced with death by hanging.
But the law imposes harsh punishments on other “terrorism crimes”, including attending meetings by people deemed be terrorists. For example, those who “declare publically their hostility” to the state or to the regime, or show “disloyalty to the leadership” are punished by ten years in jail.
UAE officials did not comment on Iraq’s Shia groups’ reactions but its State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said organizations on the list can appeal to his country’s courts to revoke the decision if they can provide enough evidence that they are not involved in terrorist activities.
While it remains unclear how the UAE’s measures will affect foreign organzaitions, the move can still carry political and moral weight. Groups which have been included on similar lists in the past suffered from negative publicity even after they were removed from the lists. Terrorism branding may also have political ramifications, such as condemning the political and ideological goals of the communities the groups represent.
This explains the immediate strong reaction to the news of the inclusion of Shia militias, such as Asaib Al-Haq, Kataab Hozbollah and the Badr Organisation in the UAE’s list. These groups have joined the so-called the “Popular Mobilization”, or Shia fighters who answered a call by Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani to arms after the Islamic State (IS) terror group captured Sunni towns in a June major offensive.
“We condemn these false accusations,” said a statement by the leadership of the Iraqi National Alliance after an emergency meeting chaired by its head Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari and attended by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and other Shia leaders.
The sharp-worded statement also slammed the UAE’s move as “hostile” to the Iraqi people and “a clear support to terrorism and the criminal forces.” “It is like throwing a rescue rope to IS while it is breathing its last,” the Shia leaders said, demanding that the UAE revoke its decision.
Iraq’s government, which has been reaching out to Sunni neighbours whose relations with Baghdad were strained in the years of former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s rule, did not react immediately to the UAE’s decision. Still, the Shia Alliance’s statement seems to be purposeful and reflective of Iraq’s Shia ruling elite.
There is a big controversy in Iraq over the Shia militias. Sunnis have accused them of committing atrocities while carrying out retaliatory attacks. Last week Sunni Vice-President Osama Al-Nujiafi told senior Shia politician and leader of the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council Ammar Al-Hakim that the government should “put a halt on violations by irresponsible groups” against Sunnis.
The UN human rights agency and international rights groups have accused the Shia militias of gross violations, including abducting and murdering Sunnis in retaliation for attacks by IS. Amnesty International has said that the militias, which are armed and supported by the Iraqi government, face complete impunity for their actions.
The government of Prime Minister A-Abadi has vowed to rein in the Shia militias. On Friday Minister of Interior Mohammad Salim Al-Ghaban denied any connection between “these factions and kidnapping or blackmailing of citizens.” Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, however, acknowledged violations by “some” of these militias though he distanced his Sadrist Movement from atrocities.
“Those who terrorize people and aggress on them and their properties unlawfully don’t belong to us. The majority are infiltrators who belong to enemies and abhorrent militias,” he said in a statement.
Iraq’s Shia militias were created after the US invasion in 2003 to fill security vacuum and encounter increasing attacks on Shia neighborhouds and towns by extremist Sunni insurgents. Some of them, such as the Mahdi Army and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, joined major armed confrontation against the US troops.
The issue of the Shia militias, however, has become very contentious after the IS advance and its seizure of nearly one third of Iraq’s territories. The Iranian-backed Shia militias are reported to have played a key role in halting IS’s onslaught, protecting the capital Baghdad and key Shia shrines and retaking key towns from the terror group.
In recent months the Iraqi government has been talking about integrating the Shia militias into the security forces. It is already paying their salaries and providing them with weapons. Many of the militias are wielding enormous influence in Shia neighborhouds. They are also represented in the parliament and the government and play an increasing role in Iraq’s polity.
Many questions now surround the UAE’s decision to include the Iraqi Shia militias in its terrorism black list. While the UAE has not explained why the Iraqi Shia militias are on its list of terrorist organizations, the simmering sectarian crisis in Iraq has cast a shadow on its move. Many Iraqi Shia feel that they are being targeted by the Arab Sunni world as Iraq’s sectarian tensions have reached a fever pitch.
One precondition made by the US-led coalition to help Iraq combating IS is for a political process that allows for the various communities of Iraq to come back together. A centeral piece of the strategy, pushed by the coalition, which includes the UAE and several other Arab countries, to defeat IS, is to create a mainly Sunni national guard force to police Sunni-dominated provinces.
The Shia political groups which dominate the government have been reluctant to endorse the creation of such an autonomous force for fear that it will be infiltrated by Saddam Hussein’s loyalists and other Sunni insurgents who might turn against the government once they are left operating independently.
As a counter proposal, the Shia groups want to incorporate the Shia militias into the national guard which should also be put under the prime minister’s command. Some Shia lawmakers say that if a bill to set up the guard will come to the parliament they will insist that Kurdish Peshmergas forces should also be part of the new guard units, a move Kurds have vehemently rejected.
Hence comes the furry of the Iraq Shia leaders for the inclusion of several Iraqi Shia armed groups in the UAE terrorism list. With ethno-sectarian tensions continue, Iraq’s communal factions are expected to rely more heavily on their armed groups as their traditional insurance policy. This trend is expected to continue until an all inclusive security system is established and a political solution for Iraq’s sectarian crisis is found.
By branding their armed groups terrorists, Iraqi Shia will feel that there is a deliberate attempt by some Sunni Arab governments to mix what they perceive as their legitimate self- defense against terrorism with the brutal violence which is driven by ideological appeal sought by the IS.

The article in Al-Ahram Weekly November 27 issue was sent to print before UAE’s foreign minister’s visit to Baghdad a day earlier.